“Wow… mad!” Ashley Henry’s first words summed it all up, capturing the London-born pianist’s likeable, down-to-earth demeanour, as well as giving an indication of his talent, a reaction to the crowd’s own rapturous response to his opening tune.
Henry’s core band is a trio format, but as with his recently released album, Beautiful Vinyl Hunter, this performance featured a dazzling array of “very special guests”, emerging one after another. First up, KOKOROKO's Sheila Maurice-Grey, with searing trumpet solos that cut through in the occasionally somewhat muddy sounding EartH auditorium. Later, the sharp-suited and vocally acrobatic Randolph Matthews, the effortlessly powerful Zola Marcelle, lively Manchester-based MC Sparkz – and many others besides – all helped elevate the show to the next level.
On keys, Henry is a creative and dynamic player, with a fantastic feel for rhythm and pocket. At times, it’s hard to imagine that there can be a much more in-sync piano trio playing across the entire London Jazz Festival. Solo sections see Henry sweep across the keyboard, expertly building moments of tension and release, flowing quickly from one idea to another with seeming ease and a broad grin. It’s tricky to pick a highlight, though an arrangement of hip-hop classic ‘The World Is Yours’ – with its famous sample from Ahmad Jamal’s ‘I Love Music’ – is up there, along with the irresistible groove of ‘Dark Honey’ and the tense, rising chords of the theatrical ‘Pressure’.
Opening the night were two promising acts, in the form of Ben Marc and Sans Soucis. The former’s group creates a large, reverby sound that fills the room, before breaking down into drum grooves or leaving space, in one case, for a powerful rap. Sans Soucis is an intriguing singer-songwriter with shades of Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding about her – haunting vocal melodies floating above interesting chord progressions. Both ones to watch for the future.
Towards the end of the night, Ashley Henry says he never imagined he would one day sell out a venue the size of EartH. But as the warm standing ovation from a won-over crowd attests, this is one of the brightest lights of the London scene, and he should have no problem going on to even bigger and better things.